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Research Grant to Make a Big Difference to Coral Reefs

By: Charlie Shuetrim, Category: Science, Date: 11 Jun 2014

Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation has been awarded a grant for research on crown of thorns starfish — the biggest cause of coral loss.

$500,000 Grant to Protect Coral Reefs from Crown of Thorns Starfish

Katharina Fabricius © Australian Institute of Marine Science

I recently had the pleasure of attending The Ian Potter Foundation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Grants announcement in Melbourne.

The wonderful news is that the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation (LIRRF) has been awarded a 50th Anniversary Commemorative Grant of $500,000 for research on crown of thorns starfish at the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station (LIRS).

The focus of these 50th Anniversary Commemorative Grants was “Make a Difference”.

Well…this grant really will make a difference!

Scientists estimate that crown of thorns starfish have consumed about 20% of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) since 1986. Cyclones are estimated to have destroyed slightly more than this. All told about half of the living coral has been lost since 1986.

While we cannot readily change the frequency or severity of cyclones we CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT CROWN OF THORNS STARFISH!!

Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) are part of the natural environment on coral reefs but population outbreaks cause much destruction. These outbreaks occur periodically but when severe, they can eat almost all of the coral on a reef.

A single starfish can produce up to 60 million eggs in one year and they breed for five to seven years so a small population of COTS can potentially produce a large number of offspring.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the marine tourism industry put a lot of effort into controlling major COTS outbreaks in selected areas.

Until recently, this involved injecting each starfish multiple times with a solution of sodium bi-sulphate but this was time-consuming and not always effective as it depended upon the diver making an adequate number of injections in the appropriate parts of the starfish.

Then in 2012, Professor Morgan Pratchett and Dr. Rivera Posada, both from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) at James Cook University, undertook testing to determine if it was disease that normally ended COTS outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef.

They found that the COTS naturally harbour Vibrio bacteria and that these bacteria are capable of quickly killing their host under certain conditions. From this discovery they found that the injection of a harmless protein mixture used to grow bacteria in the laboratory can kill the COTS.

In 2013 they conducted extensive research in the aquarium system at LIRS to ensure that killing COTS with their new protein mixture did not cause harm to any other sea life. When these tests were successful, they received approval from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to conduct tests on reefs adjacent to the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station.

I was fortunate to be at LIRS when these tests were conducted and to observe the divers actually doing the testing. The tests were successful with 100% mortality of the starfish injected only once with the new solution. This new method represents a major step forward in our ability to control COTS outbreaks. It is faster, easier and very much cheaper than the previous method.

BUT… it is not the complete solution. The purpose of this grant from The Ian Potter Foundation is to facilitate further research at LIRS aimed at controlling outbreaks of COTS in the future. COTS are part of the natural environment so we are not seeking to exterminate them, just to understand how to prevent the outbreaks that are so destructive to the coral on the GBR.

We are very excited to have received this Commemorative Grant that has the potential to be so important to the future of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and indeed coral reefs around the world.

Charlie Shuetrim
Trustee of LIRRF